From the Collections (Part Two)

(FYI click here for PART ONE)

The ride to Allston takes twenty minutes. The streetcar is crowded, but no one is rude. People are discussing their lives: college, law school, children, dinner. I feel like I should be nervous to see David, but I’m not. I am only excited. When we get to the stop, I hop off, and there he is. We’d agreed to meet at his apartment. But he’s there, waiting for me. And he smiles the way he smiled when he was happy and we embrace. It feels natural, not overly-emotional, except that his showing up to meet me makes me think of my current relationship and how my boyfriend would not do such a thing. He would not inconvenience himself to meet me, and realizing this makes me a bit maudlin.David asks if I want to go right to dinner or if I want to go to his apartment first, “so you can see Ed.” Ed is his cat, the cat he got when we first started dating. After we broke up, I used to think about Ed and it would cause me something akin to physical pain. “Of course I want to see Ed!” I said.

His apartment is exactly like I’d imagined. Books of literature and theory and politics lining the shelves, modest decor, dishes drying near the sink. We discuss what he’s reading and what his graduate school program is like. We don’t talk about relationships, neither ours when it was us with each other, nor ours now that it's us with other people. Ed scampers around and still has the bunny face and soft fur that I used to gather in my lap, sitting cross-legged on our old apartment floor in Minneapolis… We seem to sense it’s time to go, so we put our coats back on and head for the street.

The place where we have dinner isn’t actually a restaurant; it’s a bar. A multi-level bar. We end up on the second floor. We sit across from each other in a dark wooden booth. The room is spacious and we are practically by ourselves as there are hardly any other patrons upstairs. In this new environment the intimacy and the memories are sucked out of the equation. Without these, all we’re left with is awkwardness; residual bitterness and unsettled emotions. I can sense he's stewing in this morass. As we look over the menu, I can feel him getting angry with me. It's not because of anything I’m doing now. It's because we were together from 2003 to 2005. And I left him. I can feel the tension, sense him wagering how he wants to proceed.

The waitress comes and just like that we snap into functioning. We order beers and nachos. This was just the kind of thing we would've ordered in 2004, and although it should feel bittersweet, it mainly just feels bitter. I decide to try to win back his trust and good graces through kind comments and fond memories, but he doesn't want to take the bait. At some point he mentions he sees a friend and abruptly gets up from the table to go say hello. I remain seated at the table, initially affronted that he hasn’t asked me to come with and has shown no indication that he’ll be bringing his friend over – but then I feel relieved. It’s for the best. Who am I -- to him? No one.

When David comes back he seems in better spirits and I am double-relieved. We have limited time and I want to enjoy it. (See, I thought I was the victim of life’s machinations, but I was selfish as hell.) We talk about the wine and cheese shop in Minneapolis where we both worked during college. We talk about his old roommate and mine. We laugh and get a second beer. He tells me about his girlfriend, Julie. She sounds great, like a great match for him, and I pretend to be learning about her for the first time though naturally I’ve scoured her social networking profile and feel as though I know a good deal about her already. Then he mentions, “She was going to come tonight, but decided not to. I think she might be mad at me.” Where is she? I ask. “At a bar with some friends.” Ah, I say, sipping my beer. He shrugs it off before I can pry and says everything’s fine, but then pops up and says he’s going to call her.

Again I’m alone in the booth, and this time I don’t feel relieved. I feel like shit.

When he returns I’ve already started slipping away into the land of self-pity and regret. But I put on my game face. “How is everything?” I ask. “It’s good,” he says, smiling. “It was good I called.” Yeah, I think, looking at my phone. Wouldn’t it be amazing if my boyfriend called… I decide to tell him about my monster. It just comes out, without deliberation. It’s the first time I’ve admitted everything, in full, to anyone. As I relinquish detail after detail, he doesn’t give away a thing. Nothing more than an occasionally furrowed brow or a quizzical expression. I tell him how the monster and I met, how good things were at first, how fun and exciting. When I finish explaining my fears of his faithlessness, his poor treatment and the insults and the drunken outbursts and freedom with employing my funds for his own purposes… David is sitting back in the booth. He’s expressionless now. I can’t tell if he’s angry at my boyfriend or angry at me or angry at himself for sitting through the last twenty minutes.

“I don’t know about this guy.” That’s all he says.

“Me neither.” That’s all I say.

Suddenly it’s abundantly clear we both need to be going.

We pay the bill in lightning speed and make for the exit. On the walk from the bar to the train stop we don’t say much. We may not have said a single thing. I can’t say for sure. When we get to the stop, there are a few people standing there, waiting for the train back into the city. He’s going to depart and head to the bar to meet Julie and her friends. He doesn’t say he is, but I know he is. I sort of want him to ask me to join him, but again, I’m selfish and want validation from someone I’ve hurt. He doesn’t need to ask me. He didn’t even need to see me, make time for me, listen to my bullshit about a depraved older man. We stand at the stop for only moments before he says how nice it was to see me and gives me a hug.

Then he turns and walks off into the night.

I lean against the railing and wait for the train. When it comes I feel like it's run me over. I feel decimated. Shocked at my own behavior and expectations. Shocked that I am leaving Boston tomorrow to return to Philadelphia and my hellish existence back there. Shocked that I am in such a horrible position in my life and that I'm responsible for it -- I’ve made every move that’s gotten me here.

When I get off the train, I walk back to my hotel, slowly, ambling, staring at the stars and the buildings and the people on the streets who are hurrying by, laughing, happy, blissfully ignorant of how bad things could be if they just fucked things up enough. At the library across from my hotel I stare at the names engraved in stone. Great men. What the fuck. Where did my life go wrong? I think. I feel like a character in a story that’s lost its plot. I feel like the superfluous man in Russian literature. I feel like a lonely, sad, confused young woman, lingering in the background.

“Do you have a cigarette?”

I turn around and see a guy, late-thirties, maybe a little older, standing there. He immediately reminds me of someone I knew in Minneapolis.

“No,” I say. “If I did I’d be smoking it.”

“Well, we better go get some then,” he says, and he extends his arm.

I take it. I don’t even think, I just take it. It feels like a lifeline.

We march down the street to a drugstore where they sell cigarettes. He’s tall, over six feet, and handsome in an offbeat way. It’s his warmth that makes him especially handsome. And his damage. (Yes, I can already tell this man suffers from the affliction known as: life.) We buy the cigarettes, chatting incessantly throughout the process like old friends. It's quickly obvious that he’s sharp as a tack and hilarious. I am laughing for what feels like the first time in years. We decide to get a drink. We pass a bar that he suggests, though it looks less than ideal to me (popular with the mid-twenties crowd—of which I am a member, but remember, I felt 100 years old. I thought we should be somewhere elegant, cozy, defamiliar…) We take our seats in the crowded bar and he says: let’s get a shot. Yes, I say.

We sit close.

"Where are you from?"

“Minneapolis,” I say, “originally.”

“That means you don’t like where you live now,” he says.

“Ha,” I say.

“So where is that? Wait. Let me guess,” he says. “You live in Philadelphia.”

We knock our shots of Jameson and drink them.

“And you?”

“DC,” he says. “But I’m in Boston all the time for lawyer-things.”

“You’re a lawyer,” I say. “Should have guessed.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I know. I’m ashamed.”

“I won’t ask what kind of law, because it doesn’t matter and I’m sure you’ll oversell it, by pretending to undersell it.”

He laughs. “Intellectual property. But I do all kinds. I’ve done some things for the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.”

“Intellectual property is the lamest kind of law,” I say, doing what I always do when I feel inferior—dismiss.

“I won’t disagree with you,” he says, going on to tell me a few anecdotes that haven’t stuck with me, but seemed impressive and wickedly funny at the time.

He says he has to make a quick call and begs me not to leave. I think: why would I leave? But give him my word. I order a beer. New Castle. While I wait, I feel my spirits lift. I feel like I’m in the company I’m supposed to be in: a stranger’s. Further, a stranger who likes to drink and is overly emotive.

When he gets back he says something like 'I’m glad I had that time away so I could reflect and realize what an asshole I am for talking about myself. Tell me about you. Why are you here. What do you do. Where is your boyfriend. Why are you wandering the streets of Boston, staring at stone lions…is that a New Castle? That's my favorite beer...' I tell him I just went to dinner with an ex and it was predictably awkward. I tell him my boyfriend is at our apartment. I tell him I’m here for a work conference and it’s not worth talking about because it’s boring. I tell him I moved to Philly for graduate school, and though I hoped to meet funny, smart, weird people, I mainly met the inner-workings of myself – and those were not worth meeting. I tell him I recently finished my novel: Book of Jane. He asks what it's about and I tell him how it ends: “And it has begun to rain. And the world is wet. And I am talking in my sleep.”

He sits across from me, and doesn’t speak. His lips stay closed, but his eyes are full of emotion. “You aren’t who I thought you were,” he says. “When I stopped you on the street…I didn’t expect you to be like this. You are not just pretty, but smart.”

I order another round of shots because I can’t tell anymore when someone is sincere or when they are full of shit or when they are playing a line they’ve played as many times as I’ve written in my diary: “fucked up again tonight…” I feel suspicious about his sincerity because I know I am not pretty/beautiful, but if I correct for how much he’s drunk, it’s possible he might really think that.

What happens next is we drink our beers and he starts telling me about his complicated relationship with his father. We travel down the highways and byways of his rebellious youth, his overbearing and exacting father who naturally had a temper and who could never be pleased. And we land at the hospital bed where he, the prodigal son, stood over his dad, and in that moment there passed something like understanding; something like forgiveness.

He’s getting weepy as he tells the story and I console him. I consider telling him my own stories of death, but don’t want him to think I’m trying to one-up him. I want to keep talking, but I wonder if he’s getting too drunk for us to continue hanging out. As if on cue, he says he’s going to go smoke a cigarette to calm down. I tell him to take his time. Again, alone at the bar, I order another round of beers. The bartender is kind, but has a flash to his eye that seems to say, “I know where this is headed…”

Outside the bar windows I see my dissolute partner talking to someone, another man. I stand up to put money in the jukebox and realize: I am drunk. I go to the bathroom to collect myself and when I return my companion still hasn’t returned. I look out the windows, but don’t see him. I wait for a few more minutes, and suddenly it occurs to me: he isn’t coming back. I don't even flinch. I pay the bill and walk back to my hotel.

It goes without saying I had a wicked hangover the next day. And it goes without saying I walked through the “Boston and Beyond” exhibit in the Map Center at the Boston Public Library in a complete daze. And it goes without saying that the train ride back to Philly was long and when I got into 30th Street Station I realized I was actually happy to be home. And it goes without saying that Laurence/Larry (my companion that night) called me (had I given him my number?) He left a long rambling message, apologizing for his hasty exit—he’d ran into someone who knew him, and knew he was in trouble (i.e. drunk and kicking it at bar with someone who was not his significant other). And yes, he was in a relationship and he cared dearly for that person, but, he wanted to get together, civilly, the next time he came through Philadelphia. I saved the message for a while, but didn’t call him. He called a couple times after that, but I never called him back.

It was the night of March 12th when I got back to Philadelphia. I don’t remember if my boyfriend picked me up or if he came to meet me at the station with flowers. I don’t remember if we talked about my trip or if I asked him how his time without me had gone. I know on the 15th we broke up. It took me a month to move out, and another few months to extricate him, fully, from my life. But slowly, surely, I got my shit back together.

And that handsome young doctor my coworker talked about that day in the Cheescake Factory? We ended up getting married. La lala la, la lala la...

“Walking through the coffee shop parking lot, I can feel the night sky all around me, breathable.”

Jack Erdmann

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